Varsity Blues

NCAA's policies hurt college athletes rather than help them

Commercial breaks between NCAA Tournament games often depict unrealistic scenes. AT&T squeezes Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson into preschool-sized chairs. Bud Light depicts the world’s least awkward blind date. But one advertisement stands out as obnoxiously unbelievable.

In this ad, the NCAA personifies itself as a “spirit squad cheering for student-athletes at every big event and every small one.” They tell us to “just know we’re always there for student-athletes.”
Given the organization’s role as police, prosecutor and judge in college athletics, the self-promotional commercial seems almost too satirical for The Onion. The NCAA may hope its viewing audience sees them as “for student-athletes,” but we doubt many of its constituents feel the love.

Consider the NCAA’s sanctions against Southern Cal in 2010. Then-Trojans tailback Reggie Bush and his family accepted improper benefits from parties with no association to the university. The NCAA stripped Bush of his Heisman and even vacated 14 Trojan football wins. But when it also banned the football team from two postseasons and docked 30 scholarships, Trojan players unaffiliated with the infraction bore the real weight of the NCAA’s punishment well after Bush had bolted for the NFL.

Why nuke a program rather than simply nail the key culprits? Like a $10,000 speeding ticket, loud deterrence is a quick, easy and public way for the NCAA to scare schools into line and assert its authority — especially since it doesn’t have to clean up the mess down the road.

As Michael Lewis explained in The Blind Side, “The NCAA investigators were meant to act as a police department. In practice, they were more like the public relations wing of an inept fire department … Some scandal would be exposed in a local newspaper and they would go chasing after it, in an attempt to minimize the embarrassment to the system.”

NCAA sanctions create a problematic paradox: the association often lacks jurisdiction over the actual wrongdoers and instead punishes whichever student-athletes happen to be in attendance at the violating institution at the time. And because the NCAA is too busy saving face on past problems, it often fails to proactively protect student-athletes until it’s too late.

Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice verbally and physically abused his players during practices from 2010 to 2012 before finally being reprimanded by athletic director Tim Pernetti in December last year. Pernetti suspended Rice — the AD’s first big hire — for three games, fined him $50,000 and ordered he attend anger management classes. Pernetti initially defended Rice’s job, but public outrage about damning video footage exposed Tuesday by ESPN’s Outside the Lines prompted Pernetti to fire the coach Wednesday.

Rice and Pernetti will rightfully endure backlash from this scandal, and the NCAA will almost certainly sanction Rutgers – but both Rutgers and the NCAA are guilty of a lack of institutional control. Rutgers should have known better after three seasons of Rice’s ball-hurling and homophobic slurs, but the NCAA should have stepped in well before ESPN’s investigative journalists beat them to a three-year-old crime scene.

Nevertheless, the NCAA will likely penalize the school long after the guilty coach and athletic director are gone. Rice theoretically will be free to take a job with any other program and watch from afar as the next generation of Rutgers basketball players suffer for his transgressions.

We wish the NCAA would target the guilty parties without incurring collateral damage on innocent students. Instead of banning Rutgers from future postseasons, Rice should be banned from taking an NCAA job for the foreseeable future, and any program hiring him should be the one facing sanctions.

In theory, the NCAA could adjust its sanctions to more effectively punish the actual perpetrators. But college sports’ more fundamental issue is the rationale driving the sanctions themselves.
The association forces its marquee players to accept compensation well below their market value and imposes punishments when they seek a more fitting paycheck. The NCAA will tout its student-athletes’ enhanced educational opportunities — who can forget the old “going pro in something other than sports” ads? We agree the organization offers important benefits to these students. But the organization clearly fails many of its athletes, especially those in the “money” sports that sustain the system.

Current Georgia Tech football player Isaiah Johnson conducted a study with the National College Players Association and found that in a fair market, “The average football and men’s basketball players from BCS conferences would receive an average of over $714,000 and $1.5 million, respectively, above and beyond the value of their full athletic scholarships” between 2011-2015.

The NCAA restricts that market, but as Michael Lewis observes, “A market doesn’t simply shut down when its goods become contraband. It just becomes more profitable for the people willing to operate in it.”

And if boosters at SMU, Southern Cal, Ohio State, Miami or any other university are willing to pay for play, why should we expect student-athletes to turn down the money? They may love the game, and a free college education is great. But when these players are raising billions of dollars in revenue for the NCAA, the association is kidding itself if it thinks it is “protecting student athletes” when it denies them a slice of the pie.

In retrospect, the NCAA commercial caters to the audience it actually supports: the fans. The association is fighting a losing battle to protect an antiquated idea of college amateurism, and it’s not doing it for the student-athletes. It’s doing it for fans that cling to the beautiful but increasingly obsolete notion that “the love of the game” can trump all.

It’s a worthy ideal. College football is already dangerously close to becoming the NFL’s farm system. We would never want to see college basketball become a minor league version of the NBA. Kobe Bryant recently told reporters the NBA is “a fierce competition. Maybe not in the first three quarters, but in the fourth it is some of the best basketball you will ever see.”
Kobe is right, but we’d prefer two full halves of great basketball to one quarter “where amazing happens.” The best NBA stars lack the urgency of college basketball players because they already have the huge paycheck. College athletes consistently play sports with a do-or-die attitude because they have more than a game to lose.

Sure, the NCAA is hypocritical, but so are we. We think student-athletes deserve fair payment, but we aren’t willing to abandon college amateurism. So let’s at least try for a middle ground: it’s time for everyone to acknowledge the cost incurred by the NCAA’s mission and misguided policies. The NCAA isn’t “always there for student-athletes.” It’s there for all of us — even if it comes at the athletes’ expense.

related stories